The worst kept secret in Mexico was finally revealed Monday, as Gerardo “Tata” Martino, fresh off winning MLS Cup with Atlanta United in captivating fashion, has taken over as head coach of the Mexico men's national team on a deal that runs through the 2022 World Cup.
According to the federation’s president, Yon de Luisa, the coaching search included 24 interviews and trips around the world before concluding with Martino.
“A tremendous search has been completed in order to select Gerardo Martino,” de Luisa said, as the manager was officially unveiled at the headquarters of the Mexican federation. “I am extremely happy and content with his arrival.”
Martino is joined by his trustworthy group of assistants who have been with him in previous setups including Jorge Theiler (his No. 2 at Atlanta), Sergio Giovagnoli and fitness coach Rodolfo Paladini with the intention to give Mexico a new, stronger identity. Given his vast experience in Europe and South America and his ability to educate players into developing a distinct philosophy, this move is also about taking El Tri to the next level and maximizing the potential of its young stars.
Martino, for his part, showed a calm, confident demeanor during the unveiling, detailing his excitement for the task ahead. “With the players we have in Mexico and other leagues around the world, you can build a great national team.”
Despite the confidence, Martino knows too well the responsibility of this job, given the pressure of managing the men's national team in Mexico, a country that leaves little room for forgiveness. "Coaching mexico will be one of the toughest challenges of my career, without a doubt," he said, speaking to Televisa.
Naturally, there are chief goals and objectives, including a positive campaign at this summer’s Gold Cup (reaching the final should be considered a minimum requirement) and successfully qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But it could be fair to say that Martino’s biggest challenge will be to paint a new identity for the national team and give El Tri a stronger reputation on the international stage, one that goes beyond Concacaf recognition and places Mexico as a side capable of becoming one of the best sides in the Americas.
Ultimately, whether it’s fair or not, many will judge Martino's tenure on what happens in Qatar and if he can guide the team to the long-awaited quinto partido and a place in the quarterfinal of the World Cup, something that has not happened since 1986 when the country hosted the tournament. Seven consecutive last-16 eliminations have put a cap on the excitement and potential of past teams.
But Martino stressed the need to be patient and to use this new chapter as a process and to essentially stop focusing so much on this quarterfinal curse.
“Creating a squad that plays well will get us closer to our objectives,” he said. “So I can’t talk about a fourth or fifth match four years away from a World Cup.”
When asked what went wrong in Russia and other tournaments such as the 2017 Gold Cup, when El Tri lost to Jamaica in the semifinal, Martino was quick and direct with his response. “There are many reasons why a team sometimes fails, here I give two: one is about excess of confidence, the other is excess of responsibility."
Martino elaborated by saying the talent in Mexico already exists and he has all the possible tools in order to make this a successful squad. In the end, it’s about building a team who understands his philosophy mentally and physically.
“You've seen the talent we have at the World Cup and matches in 2018," Martino said. "This is about working with the players who are best suited to the system.”
Martino, for his part, inherits a relatively young team, hungry and ready to take bigger steps after a somewhat anti-climatic World Cup in Russia last summer. Yes, defeating Germany in the group stage was an all-time high moment for El Tri, but its losses to Sweden in the group finale and Brazil in the round of 16 demonstrated a sense of inconsistency under former manager Juan Carlos Osorio, where there was often a lack of offensive creativity in the final third, especially as the game developed.
In contrast, this is where Martino thrives, as goals are almost never an issue.
His Barcelona side scored 100 goals in the league, while Atlanta United scored 70 in both seasons he managed the club, a remarkable achievement for a two-year old franchise. Scoring aside, however, Martino’s arrival also means a clearer sense of formation and strategy, as his stubborn, detailed approach to shaping a team will be a contrast to Osorio’s tinkering and rotational policy, something that infuriated many fans.
And that’s the biggest difference between both managers: Under Osorio, Mexico adapted to the opposition, often placing certain players out of natural positions in order to counter the opponent’s strengths and expose its weaknesses. This philosophy was often effective because of the Colombian’s obsession with team cohesion, so every player understood his role, but as the World Cup showed (especially against Brazil) it can also backfire when you play opponents with multiple weapons.
While Martino shares the same sentiments with team cohesion, he seldom changes shape with his squads. Once he selects a formation, he lives or dies with it. As manager of Newell’s Old Boys and Argentina, his 4-3-3 shape remained stoic, while Atlanta’s 3-5-2 gung-ho system was synonymous with the team’s success–though Martino did adapt when necessary in the MLS playoffs. When he managed Paraguay, he took the South Americans to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup with a resilient 4-3-3/4-4-2 lineup. Yes, there were rotational switches with players, but the shape stayed the same. Mexico, therefore, should expect a permanent set of formations once Martino takes over. The question is, what will it look like?
Martino gave no indication during the conference, but it would be natural to suggest that this transitional Mexican side, which includes an overwhelming amount of talented wide players and attacking midfielders will push Martino to opt for a system that plays to its strengths and looks to overwhelm the final third. Players like Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and the 18-year-old Diego Lainez, for example, will benefit tremendously from an aggressively attack-minded system. With Raul Jimenez playing well with Wolves in the Premier League and Hector Herrera and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona preparing for the knockout stage of the Champions League with Porto, there is also plenty to keep an eye on in Europe.
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On Monday, Martino said he will spend time with players based in Mexico, taking time with clubs in order to familiarize himself with the local talent. He intends for Liga MX teams to make players available for a few training camps during the week.
“We hope to bring domestic players for two to three days midweek, three or four times a year,” Martino said.
After that, he will move to Europe and abroad, including MLS, which he considers a good league for players to develop.
It will be interesting to see what he does with aging stars such as Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Andres Guardado, two players who have been instrumental in the past but will be 34 and 36, respectively, by the time Qatar 2022 comes around. LAFC’s Carlos Vela, now 29, is in a similar situation. Martino did, however, say to reporters that he'll leave the door open to him and LA Galaxy teammates and brothers Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos.
“Generational changes don’t happen overnight, and it takes time," Martino said. "We will look at all the players and take each one into consideration.”
At the back, Mexico has plenty of potential with the versatile Jesus Angulo and Edson Alvarez (who can play as a center back, defensive midfielder or right back) expanding Martino's options.
Much like Gregg Berhalter and the rival U.S. men's national team, Mexico and Martino are going through a key stage of transition as they look ahead to the future. Regardless of what happened in the past four years, both countries now find themselves in similar positions, with changes to the technical staff and uncertainty in squad selection placing both sides on similar roads.
It’s clear that Mexico has upped the ante with Martino’s selection. His appointment signifies a new era for El Tri and a chance for Mexico to maintain and build on its claim as the leader of Concacaf.
There is plenty to celebrate with this appointment, but Mexican fans must remain patient, because success, just like Martino often preaches, is a process. One thing is for certain: his arrival shows a tremendous amount of ambition from the Mexican federation.